After claiming seats for a screening of a horror movie they’re definitely not old enough to watch unsupervised, Ralph (Mason McNulty), the protagonist of Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes, and his best pal Josh (Rahm Braslaw), have a pre-show confab about Ralph’s current obsession. Ralph has a mildly unhealthy attachment to the gift his mom (Christian Drerup) and dad (Jake Head) bought him for Christmas: a camcorder, which he apparently brings with him everywhere and uses to record everything, whether late night TV shows, model rocket launches, or conversations with Josh.
It’s the ’80s. Taping in a movie theater wasn’t strictly verboten as it is today. But Josh considers Ralph obsession with filming the world around him, including the movie they’re about to watch, highly unfashionable. “You? You’re gonna film it,” Josh says. “Me? I’m gonna enjoy it.”
Ralph may be the lead in VHYes, but Josh is the hero. Robbins shot the film on VHS entirely, weaving interstitial skits into the overarching narrative, in which Ralph’s love for his camcorder slowly unravels his world (figuratively) and reality (literally). He discovers, for one, that his dad is unfaithful: Raph and Josh catch him in the theater, shuffling his way to seats a few rows ahead with a woman who is not his mother in tow. He also tapes over his parents’ wedding footage with censored porn films and infomercials hocking bric-a-brac and inessential objects packaged as essential, and true crime documentaries, and ominous newscasts, each staffed with actors like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, Charlyne Yi, Mark Proksch, Courtney Pauroso, John Gemberling and, last but not least, Robbins’ own parents, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
Robbins (Jack Henry, that is) has basically made a fourth entry in the V/H/S horror series, but by way of the Upright Citizens Brigade and Adult Swim: Think of the film as an extended cousin of Too Many Cooks, where parody gives way to weirdness, which gives way to surrealism, which gives way to genuine horror by the end. Bonkers as the combination sounds, and it is unimpeachably bonkers, the effect of their marriage is hypnotic. That’s probably Robbins’ intent. Just as Ralph falls into the abyss of crappy after hours public access television, so too does the viewer fall under the sway of Robbins’ living collage of a bygone era that, frankly, isn’t that bygone after all.
Josh thinks Ralph’s videographing hobby is a distracting king bummer. When he says something about it, he’s saying something for everyone in the 2020s who’s beyond sick to death of watching jamokes take selfies when they buy a smoothie from Orange Leaf. Cursed words like “Facebook” and “Instagram” are never uttered in VHYes, for obvious reasons, but the movie reads like Robbins’ thesis that for as long as people have been able to self-document, they’ve done so with relish: Ralph is the proto-social media junkie, bereft of outlets for “sharing” his daily exploits with strangers, but still possessed of a need to capture himself on camera as opportunity affords.
In one of VHYes’ micro-plots, talk show host Todd Plotz (Raymond Lee) speaks to his guest, Rita Sternwig (Mona Lee Wylde), about her study of “VHS culture,” and her belief that VHS owners exhibit symptoms of “tape narcissism.” As Plotz smugly sums up for his fictional viewers, Sternwig thinks excessive filming can lead to “isolation, lack of sexual desire, headaches, and in rare instances, a complete psychotic break.” By the end of VHYes, Sternwig is proven right, but long before then, Robbins’ point is made that life lived on either side of the camera is life not experienced. Is that a self-defeating argument for a filmmaker to pose? Perhaps. But Robbins is making art where Ralph is curating his existence, using the fuzzed-up quality of VHS as a filter for what he sees and does and even feels. Even when reality rears its ugly head and he begins to question his parents’ relationship, Ralph can’t quite register what it all means. That’s the effect of the camera. That’s the effect of VHYes.
Director: Jack Henry Robbins
Writers: Jack Henry Robbins, Nunzio Randazzo
Starring: Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Christian Drerup, Jake Head, Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, Charlyne Yi, Mark Proksch, Courtney Pauroso, John Gemberling, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Raymond Lee, Mona Lee Wylde
Release Date: January 17, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.